It made headlines today in The Boston Globe and countless other newspapers across the U.S.: The United States Supreme Court, in a divided decision, struck down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles who are, or were, convicted of murder. The court ruled that such sentencing statutes violate the ban against “Cruel and Unusual Punishment” imposed by the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
This decision nullifies Massachusetts law regarding juveniles convicted of murder, and throws the doors wide open as to sentences of 61 Massachusetts prisoners, who, over the past four decades, were juveniles ordered to spend the rest of their lives in jail. There will, no doubt, be a bevy of appeals now that the Supreme Court justices have made this ruling, and courts may have to hold new sentencing hearings.
As a Norfolk County criminal defense lawyer, I applaud this decision. I firmly believe that the law, as it stood, was much too severe and harsh on juvenile defendants, who not only are not adults, and are not mature in their decisions and actions, but who arguably have greater prospects for reform. I’m glad that the court recognized the juvenile offenders should be treated differently than adults, in terms of possible sentencing for life without parole following a conviction of first degree murder.
This will call into question 61 cases in Massachusetts including some very high-profile juvenile murder convicts who include:
• Edward O’Brien, who was convicted in the 1995 murder of his neighbor Janet Dowling, when he was 15;
• John Odgren, who, as a 16-year-old special needs student at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, stabbed a fellow student in the school bathroom;
• And Donnie Bouphavongsa, who was one of six teenagers who beat a 17-year-old boy to death with hammers and shovels, in what was through to be a gang-related killing.
Across the nation, there are about 2,500 prisoners who are, at present, serving life sentences without parole, for crimes they committed while they were under 18 years of age, according to Human Rights Watch.
Readers should understand what the Supreme Court’s ruling says, and what it doesn’t say: It doesn’t say that juveniles who are convicted of murder cannot be sentenced to life in prison. It says that mandatory sentencing of juveniles to life in prison without possibility of parole is impermissible. Mandatory sentencing is a scenario where once a jury comes back with a conviction of murder, a judge has no choice but to sentence the juvenile convict to life in prison with no possibility of parole. Mercy and mitigating factors have no bearing on the judge’s sentence. As a Massachusetts murder defense lawyer, I believe that judges should be allowed to consider at sentencing that juveniles may present a greater capacity than adults to atone for their crimes, and to change for the better.
Balancing idealism with realism here, the following fact should be noted: Almost always, the evidentiary facts that produced the convictions of juvenile convicts, such as the ones listed above and more, were truly horrific and beyond description. These juvenile convicts were not just thrown into prison without a fair trial and without compelling evidence. Thus, if the facts warrant a life sentence, a judge should have, and in the future will have, the freedom to impose a life sentence. But a judge’s hands should not be tied at sentencing, and – for juvenile defendants only – that’s what the Supreme Court ruled today.
So readers should understand: Life convicts who were juveniles when they were convicted, are not going to be summarily released from prison. Judges reviewing the mandatory life sentences without parole of juveniles convicted in Massachusetts, for those convicts listed above and many more, will very likely still have the option to impose life in prison, or perhaps decades of time in prison. But in that case, the juvenile convict would retain the possibility of parole in the future. And that is, in my professional legal opinion, a more balanced approach to juvenile sentencing.